A dirty day’s twitching…

Red-necked Phalarope (record shot)

Today I went on the Sheffield Bird Study Group’s “Twitcher’s Fieldtrip”. Basically it was a bit of a mystery tour, with no fixed destination, and decisions based on where we go based purely on what birds are around.

A concentration of decent stuff led us to Lincolnshire, where we started off at what must be one of the longest-named nature reserve in Britain, Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe Dunes NNR. On the way we stopped to examine a field of mute swans near North Cote, and found at least 14 whooper swans among them, which was a great start to the day.

On arriving at Saltfleetby, we began looking for our targets, shore lark, twite and snow bunting – not mega rarities by any stretch but nice birds to see. A large mixed flock of twite and snow bunting were very easy to find, and even got reasonably close to us, and a bit of scanning of the shore finally turned up four shore larks hopping along right opposite the main path to the car park. Shore larks are a bird I’ve always wanted to see, and along with the twites, were among the first two of a quartet of lifers for the day.

Then we moved on to Far Ings to see the star of the day (and the third lifer), the juvenile red-necked phalarope that has been hanging around for a good few days. It really was an obliging little bird, showing well and close as soon as we got to the lagoon it’s been frequenting. Sadly our arrival at the phalarope also heralded the first proper downpour of the day, a rather nasty shower that meant we didn’t give the phalarope (or Far Ings) the attention deserved, and the ropey picture above is all I managed to get in fear of my camera getting horribly drenched. As we were retreating, we did manage to get a woodcock in flight over the reserve, and the feeding station saw a group of tree sparrows and a peculiarly dark-coloured great tit.

Next stop was Alkborough, hoping to see the green-winged teal that has been there recently. Sadly the flock of common teals were loitering on the far side of the lake, and despite many eyes squinting down scopes none were giving up any vertical-stripe secrets. There were some great sights to be had there, though, as thousands of waders, including lapwing, golden plover, knot, dunlin and black-tailed godwit took to the skies simultaneously as a marsh harrier menaced over the reeds.

Then the final stop was over the Humber at Blacktoft Sands. Sadly some pillock in the car in front decided to eat into our fading daylight by insisting on driving in front of the minibus, on the windy, unovertakable (shut up, it is a word, honest…)  roads at no more than 20mph, for what seemed like miles and miles. Tempers temporarily frayed, when we finally arrived at Blacktoft we were rewarded by our final target of the day in the shape of four water pipits, that were flitting around on the mud and viewable from the Stapleton hide. Conclusive ID from the meadow pipits that were also present proved initially quite tricky, but the water pipits’ more contrasting plumage and strong supercilium made them stand out and something out of the ordinary (I’m sure someone else can explain the finer points a bit better than me!). A few members of the group picked up a barn owl (although I was too busy squinting at pipits at the time), and of course the Blacktoft marsh harriers were as active as ever, but sadly nothing else exciting arrived before we left.

So a great day bombing around Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire, and some cracking birds seen. Thanks to Paul Medforth for organising the trip and driving us around all day!


Carsington, Redmires, etc.

Last week I had a trip to Carsington Water, a great site in Derbyshire I’ve never visited before. The main aim of the day was great northern diver, which we got reasonable quickly, although sadly only distantly through the scope. A very distinctive bird though, its shape unmistakable even as a distant silhouette.

After spending the afternoon yomping around the reservoir, with highlights including willow tit and buzzard, we went back to see if we could find the ring-billed gull in the rather impressive gull roost there. Sadly we didn’t, but I picked up a lifer in the form of one of the yellow-legged gulls that resides there, among hundreds of lesser black-backed, herring and a smattering of common gulls.

Also “ticked” that day were barnacle geese, in the form of the feral flock that winter there. A few were hanging around with the Canada geese round the visitors’ centre, which really didn’t add to their wild credentials, but category C birds are accepted by the BOU, and so who am I to argue?!

Barnacle Geese

On Sunday I had a walk round Redmires, sadly missing the crossbills which have been seen there (by far my biggest 2009 “bogey” at the moment…), but it was nice to see large flock of lapwings and golden plover on the middle reservoir, and a couple of red grouse in the moorland.

Golden Plover

Finally, today there’s been the first waxwings reported in Sheffield, with just two in their usual haunt of Manchester Road at Crosspool. If I get chance I may have a look up there in my lunch hour tomorrow, and will of course update this blog if I get any!

How to find… Waxwings!


OK, I’ve still not got much interesting to write about, so I thought I’d make myself useful and do the first of some semi-regular posts on how to find certain species.

Now November’s with us it’s time to be wary that waxwings may descend upon us at any moment. Some years these Scandinavian berry-munchers arrive in Sheffield their hundreds (such as last year), or sometimes there’s virtually none (such as the year before). Conditions in their homeland play a big factor in this, especially waxwing population size and the success of that year’s berry crop. I’m not sure what the situation there is this year, but so far there’s only been a handful of waxwing reports in the UK, so perhaps it’s not going to be a good year, but time will tell.

Waxwings love red berries, and this love brings them to unlikely places where ornamental trees and shrubs such as rowan and cotoneaster have been planted, such as supermarket car parks, retail parks and town centres. This means they can be a handy lunch-hour twitch, or an unexpected surprise while doing some Christmas Shopping.

A nice surprise at the supermarket…

They’re noisy birds, that give a distinctive pulsing, high-pitched trill (hear it here), which is very loud where sizable flocks gather. Learning this noise is the most powerful tool in your waxwing-finding arsenal, as you will very often hear them before you see them. The triangular sillhouette of a waxwing in flight is very similar to that of a starling, and they are also confusable if sat in a large flock as they are a similar size and shape. If you see a flock of what appears to be starlings in a tree, it’s always worth giving them a quick scan in the winter months just in case.

Easy to dismiss as starlings…

Waxwings have a distinctive habit of feeding, where they’ll perch in the tallest tree in the area (so it’s worth checking flocks settling on trees such as poplars), and then without warning swoop en masse into the surrounding berry trees, gorging themselves on berries until they’ve had their fill and they head back to their lookout. If you catch them mid-snack they can be very confiding.

There are several locations in Sheffield that attract waxwings, and may be worth a look over the winter, and I’ve put some of them in the Google Map below. Also keep your eyes open on the Sheffield Bird Study Group and Derbyshire Ornithological Society websites for latest sightings, and check sites like BirdGuides (if you’ve got a subscription).

A dose of flu…

Well, I was hoping to start November with some good hijinks from the weekend, as I fully intended to have a potter round Little Matlock Wood to get some mushrooms for my uni course on Saturday, and spend Sunday morning vis-migging at Redmires. Unfortunately the flu struck on Friday evening – I’m not being overdramatic enough to say it was the dreaded swine flu, but it was a nasty bout that wiped me out for the entire weekend, and very nicely made me just about all right again to go to work on Monday. So nothing interesting to report!

All I can say is I took some comfort from being woken up by the rain lashing against the bedroom window at 7am on Sunday, which made me slightly less sad at missing the vis mig trip…!

So all I’ve got to say, really, is to keep your eyes open for the latest Birdwatching Magazine, in which I have a “Go Birding” walk for the Loxley Valley. Whether or not this means my patch will be innundated with new birders has yet to be seen, but I know of one fella who saw the walk and ended up going there and seeing his first dipper, which is what it’s all about really.

Hopefully next weekend I’ll be up to full speed and will finally have something interesting to say!